OH NO, I got #Hashtag hijacked! These tips will avoid this happening in the future.

Have you been a victim of a Hashtag Hijacking? Don’t stress, with these do’s and dont’s, this will never happen to you again...

4 Sep 2019 3613 Views

Written by Rebecca Hitijahubessij

Have you been a victim of a Hashtag Hijacking? Don’t stress, with these do’s and dont’s, this will never happen to you again.

cowboy hijacking hashtag on social media
Cowboy hijacking hashtag

It’s 9 PM in the night, you are still at the office, sitting there in the conference room with four of your most creative genius minds next to you. Trying to come up with a new social media campaign to put online, the latest viral trend, an amazing hashtag… You are cramming your minds for hours and all of a sudden there it is, a fantastic hashtag! You put it online, and the next day you curious to see how much awareness you created, but suddenly you realize that you’ve been… hashtag hijacked! OH NO!

But first… let me explain what a hashtag is

Hashtags can be a phrase or word without any spaces, with a pound sign (#) in front of it (Jain, Agarwal & Pruthi, 2015), which allow organizational and nonorganizational members to have an active role in the authoring process (Jackson, 2007; Albu & Etter, 2016). The hashtag symbol has become interchangeable with sorting, finding, labeling and clicking of acts. For example: using the hashtag #superbowl made it easier to track and communicate about a common event or topic, whether or not they followed one another (Daer, Hoffman & Goodman, 2014).

Organizations can easily use hashtags in their marketing approach, by setting up a hashtag to communicate desired identities and reach a wide number of internal and external audiences (Cheney, Christensen & Dailey, 2014). However, making it easy to share and edit posts also have consequences.  Daer et al. (2014), stresses the fact that you can lose control of your hashtag, and lose the initial meaning of your post (Albu & Etter, 2016).

Houston, we have a problem…

Enough theory, let’s get back to the story.

Why would someone hijack your hashtag? According to Campbell (2013), there are two types of hijacking: the people that see trending topics as an opportunity to interrupt a conversation and make use of the attention, aka attention seeking trolls, and the PR disasters. When basically the positive meaning behind the hashtag has been interpreted or used in a negative way.

An excellent example of a hashtag that went completely wrong is the Jameis Winston case, an American football quarterback player. The Florida State University (FSU) came up with the idea to launch a Twitter public relations campaign to engage Jameis fans more, by asking “Do you have a question for our starting QB Jameis Winston? Tweet us using #AskJameis”. However, the outcome was not what the FSU saw coming. Instead of receiving fun questions, people used this opportunity to criticize FCU, referencing to Winston’s legal incidents or using general sarcasm (Sanderson, Barnes, Williamson & Kian, 2016).

Another example of how hashtag hijacking went wrong is the McDonald’s case. This campaign was launched hoping McDonalds’ customers would share their heart-warming stories about Happy Meals. Instead, customers were sharing their horror stories about the company (Jain, Agarwal & Pruthi, 2015).

tweet from Skip Sullivan tweeting about the hashtag #McDStories
Tweet about McDStories Skip Sullivan, 2012

What to do now?

First of all, take a deep breath…

#1 Find the hijacker and delete it: in case you experienced the same as McDonald’s. It’s better to repair the damage and find a way to save this PR disaster (Katschthaler, n.d.). If the content is hurtful, try to find the creator and let them know that you removed their post from the common wall and block their accounts, so that they can’t cause more harm.

#2 Should I respond? Unfortunately, you have no control over the people who posted these messages with your hashtag. The only thing is to accept it, and do some damage control, by asking yourself “is it wise to respond?”. In case of complaints from customers, the best thing to do is apologize for it and hope they will take it. If the hijackers were the ones that were trolling with you, then it’s best to not pick this fight. This might lead to a bigger issue and will keep the “negative” topic active (Parker, 2013).

#3 Wait it out, it will pass… According to Blumenfeld (n.d.), if you did all above, the only thing you can do is to wait. Eventually, with all PR scandals, this issue will be forgotten by people. These hashtag hijackers will not stick and will move on to another victim.

Good to know: different functions of hashtags

Daer et al. (2014), categorizes the functions of hashtags in five categories: emphasizing, critiquing, identifying, iterating and rallying.  It can be useful for companies and for you, to know what these functions are before starting your amazing hashtag.

Emphasizing: this is used to add emphasis or call attention to something in the post or describing it. For example, #itsweekend or #throwbackthursday. These hashtags are usually expressed without judgment as a comment or reflection.

Critiquing:  the purpose of the post is to express judgment or have an opinion regarding the object of discussion, for example using hashtags as, #whatishethinking #justinbieberisawesome

Identifying: this is used to refer to the author of the post, most of the time to express some identifying characteristics, for example, #imawesome, #fitgirl  

Iterating: mostly used to express humor by referring to a well-known internet meme or happening in internet culture. This can also be a parody, for example, #whatdoesitmean attached to an image of a double rainbow, referring to a video that went viral of a man who was so amazed by a double rainbow.

Rallying: the function of this hashtag, brings awareness or support to a cause and could be used in marketing campaigns to gain publicity, for example, #metoo, which brought awareness against sexual harassment and assault or #movember, where man grew there mustaches to call attention for prostate cancer.

Why are we using it as a company?

As mentioned before it’s easy to track back the hashtags and see how much awareness has been created. But doing business on social media, especially on Instagram has more benefits. As around 95 million photos are uploaded each day on Instagram, 4.2 billion Instagram likes per day and 70% of the hashtags are branded (Bagadiva, 2018), these numbers sound quite promising. Another benefit of working with hashtags is that it gives businesses a great way to collect user-generated content and use this for your marketing. For example, having a great hashtag encourage people to use it and makes it easier to find these photos and videos in one place. But also gives potential customers a more authentic and trustworthy feeling, when using these user-generated content.

The 4 golden rules to avoid in the future

#1 Be creative and unique: use a hashtag which is not vague, or self-serving. According to Campbell (2013), these are the ones that people misuse and mock about. Sprout Social (2012), adds that some hashtags campaigns can go wrong because people can use it in a sarcastic way, #sharethecheer where Starbucks experienced the same as McDonald’s.

#2 Never ask! it is better to avoid open-ended questions (Sprout Social 2012),  because they can lead back again to the sarcasm.  A great example of a company who did an excellent job with the hashtag marketing is Delta Air Lines, when using a hashtag saying #Flydeltafree, instead of using #whyilovedelta which can invite people to use sarcasm (Wasserman, 2012).

#3 Track yourself: According to (Campbell, 2013), it is good to keep in mind to always check what the status is of your company and if the business is going through a hard time or experience any other setback. In cases like this, it’s not wise to start a hashtag campaign, because this can fire back.  

#4 Create a hashtag which invites a contest: building a relationship between brands and consumers is not enough,  you also have to consider developing relationships among consumers as well, which eventually lead the consumer to connect to a brand community Singh, Sonnenburg (2012). As user-generated content is a good thing to have, a campaign with hashtags is useful for promoting a new product or an event that is upcoming (Forsey, 2018). Get some inspiration from Starbucks who did a great job using their hashtags in their campaign #redcupcontest, to promote its holiday-themed seasonal beverages. Customers can post their shots using the hashtag and have a chance of winning a pricey Starbucks gift card – well we wouldn’t say no to a gift card, right?

Hopefully, you now know what the do’s and don’ts are so you don’t get Hashjacked again.

But before you go, watch this epic YouTube movie of Jimmy Fallon & Justin Timberlake showing how some hashtags can be overused.



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Students from the International Marketing and Brand Management program at Lund University are the contributing authors for the BrandBase blog.